BRIDGEWATER — Fifth-year seniors are rare on Division III football teams — except, it seems, at Bridgewater College this fall.
When the Eagles open the season Sept. 3 at home against Saint Vincent, they’ll have five fifth-year seniors and one sixth-year player on the roster as they embark on a campaign they hope ends with their first Old Dominion Athletic Conference title since 2005.
All of those super-seniors had something go wrong in their Bridgewater careers.
Tight end Justin Bingham, wide receiver Leigh Bradley, tailback Darrin McKenzie and fullback Ryan Richmond all had injuries cost them a season. For tailback Anthony Carter (the sixth-year senior) and wide receiver Julius Delbridge, it was academics.
Now, they’re all back — and with something to prove.
“I think all of us felt bad for missing,” said Bradley, who turns 23 in October and lost last season with a fractured tibia in his leg. “… We felt like if we had been there, we probably would have been still playing in the playoffs. I definitely think we could have won the ODAC. It hurt, man. Those two games we lost, it hurt, man. I get mad just talking about it right now. We’re just hungry and we feel responsible.”
Fifth-year seniors are so uncommon because, except for medical reasons, redshirts are forbidden in D-III.
“It [fifth-year seniors] really isn’t the norm in Division III, where the push is to get them out, academically, in four years,” Bridgewater College coach Michael Clark said.
For one thing, being in school for five years can get expensive. There are no athletic scholarships and most D-III schools are private.
So while these six — all of whom are starters except for Carter — get their fourth year of football after dealing with hardship somewhere in their careers, the hardship isn’t over. Bridgewater, a private college, costs about $30,000-40,000 a year (minus grants), and each super-senior said paying for their last seasons won’t be easy.
“I don’t really think much about it at all but I know, in the back of my head, it’s still there. This is very expensive” said Carter, who, with six years of private college bills, might have it worst. “I need to hurry and get out of here.”
But not too fast. There’s still the football season.
Clark, a fifth-year senior defensive back at Cincinnati in 1979, said the attitude and experience of his fifth- and sixth-year guys (they average 22.2 years old) should give BC a boost in 2011 after going 8-2 overall and 4-2 in the ODAC last season. But he also pointed out that a fifth year doesn’t come with a fairytale guarantee.
“I wasn’t a very good player. I was a better player as a sophomore and a junior than I was as a fifth-year senior,” Clark said. “I came back as a bit of a know-it-all. … I’ve had that talk with all the kids. ‘Let me tell you about my mistakes. Don’t repeat these.’”
So far, Clark said, there’s been no indication that any of this sextet will. They just want to play. Two of them even arranged their classes to have a fifth year and a last chance at football.
Bingham (high-ankle sprain in 2009) and Richmond (torn meniscus in 2010) could have graduated last spring but intentionally put off one class to this fall so they could play a fourth year of football.
“It was real important,” said Richmond, who turns 22 in November and plans to join the Marine Corps after graduating from BC in December. “Football was a high priority in my life. I felt like I had unfinished business here as a team and as a person. I set goals and I just want to reach those goals.”
Bingham, who turns 22 in December, said he also felt like his career was unfinished.
“I dedicated myself. I put a lot on the line to play football,” said Bingham, who also will graduate in December.
The 23-year-old McKenzie, however, has been held back most by injury, missing three seasons, and he also changed his major and won’t graduate until the spring of 2012.
Carter and Delbridge will be there with him.
Delbridge (23 in November) missed his sophomore year because he was academically ineligible — an experience he said he needed.
“I grew up,” said Delbridge, who, along with Bradley, will be counted on to anchor BC’s wide receivers after the departure of all-time leading receiver Tyler Beiler, now in camp with the San Francisco 49ers.
“It was a wake-up call. It was definitely a wake-up call. I think everyone needs something like that just to better themselves and become an adult. It was time for me to grow up.”
Carter’s route to the field in 2011 is the longest. After two years at Mount Union, he transferred to Bridgewater in 2008 and played sparingly before academics cost him 2009 and 2010. He also changed his major and got a sixth year because of Division III’s eligibility rules.
Clark, a former chairman of the NCAA football rules committee, said a D-III player gets 10 full semesters (defined by taking 12 or more credit hours) to play four years. Carter, he said, was able to come back in 2011 by not taking a full load last spring, making this fall semester his 10th.
The bottom line for all six super-seniors is simple.
“We just want to play,” Bradley said. “That’s all I can really say.”